Q&A with Karen Foxlee, author of The Midnight Dress
The Midnight Dress fits within the tradition of the Australian rural gothic novel such as Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker and Chris Womersley’s Bereft. What do you think it is about these types of stories that attract so many writers and readers in Australia?
I very attracted to suspense and mystery and also like a bit of gloom thrown in for good measure so I’m guessing readers and writers are attracted to the same thing. Also this is my second novel set in a small town, and I have an obsession with what lies beneath their respectable exteriors. If this places The Midnight Dress within this tradition of the rural Gothic novel then I’m happy with that.
Your representation of a small town community is quite critical. Was this based on your own experiences growing up?
No doubt the small fictional township of Leonora is made up from various memories and experiences in small towns. I spent nearly every school holiday of my childhood in Proserpine, North Queensland, which is a great place, but also a little stifling. And really, really hot. I can remember these days that went for years there, and daydreaming about running away to live in the bush behind the beach. It’s not just Proserpine though. It’s an amalgam of so many places I think, writing fictional towns is weird like that. In my head it looks a little bit like Hughenden (which is in the middle of nowhere out west) transposed somewhere between Innisfail and Cairns, with the atmosphere of Proserpine.
In your first novel, The Anatomy of Wings, you used the perspective of a child to convey the story, and here you play with multiple perspectives. Are these kind of decisions set in stone when you begin writing, or are they flexible?
No, not really. It was a long time before I found the voice of Jenny in The Anatomy of Wings. That story didn’t work until I did. With The Midnight Dress I started off writing in first person and ended up with third. You just keep going until something works. When it finally does, it unlocks the whole story, and there is much rejoicing.
Was the experience of writing this second novel radically different from writing your first?
I remember thinking writing a second must be a cinch. I’d done it once - how hard could it be? It all went a bit nasty from then on. I forgot all the important things I’d learnt from writing The Anatomy of Wings; to trust the story, to trust myself. I was on a mission to please publishers and had an imaginary audience in my head listening to every word I typed. It was a disaster quite frankly. I had to relearn to write for me, to trust I was going to find something good if I just kept writing, to believe I could do it. I can’t explain how happy I was when the story finally started to work (kind of like a big machine cranking into life). I knew everything was going to be okay.
You also work as a nurse – does this end up feeding into your writing, or do you try and keep the two roles separate?
I think they must be fairly intertwined. I don’t come home from work and jot my work day down but a large part of how you write comes from who you are, what you do, what you think, your life experiences.
Nursing is a huge part of who I am so I guess in many ways it must influence my writing. I’ve had the privilege to look after so many people and been told so many amazing stories.
Also, at the base level, nursing is my day job and I need it to survive and write. Writing is my dream job and the thing that keeps my heart alive.